1/2/2019Indiana Court Upholds One More Question Police Searches
Divided Indiana Court of Appeals says police may ask questions unrelated to the purpose of a traffic stop to extract consent to search a car.
A common police tactic during traffic stops is to tell a motorist he is free to go, and then ask "one more question." The technique is designed to leave drivers thinking they have no alternative but to say yes, continuing the interrogation. A divided Court of Appeals panel on Monday acknowledged the coercive nature of the tactic while still upholding it as legal.
The judges reviewed the September 9, 2017, stop of 21-year-old Dylan Scott Woolston, who was stopped in Mitchell while driving home from work because his license plate light was out. Officer Clay Blackburn took Woolston's license and after five minutes verified the vehicle registration on his computer (Woolston could not find his paper copy of the document).
"I'm just going to give you a warning," Officer Blackburn said.
The patrolman handed Woolston the tag light warning, and then he began walking back to his marked police SUV. After a few steps, he turned around and approached the driver's window once more. Without ever having told Woolston he was free to leave, the officer began asking questions unrelated to the license plate light. Woolston was under the impression with the lights of the police SUV flashing behind him and the officer standing right there that he could not drive away.
After he told Officer Blackburn that there was nothing of concern in the car, he was asked if the car could be searched. Again, Woolston was under the impression that he could not refuse. The court noted that it was likely the search would have happened no matter his answer.
"Although Woolston was free to decline Officer Blackburn's request, we note that had Woolston done so, this likely would have only further raised Officer Blackburn's suspicion that Woolston was, in fact, hiding something in his vehicle, potentially forming the basis for Officer Blackburn's continued questioning anyway," Judge Margret G. Robb wrote for the majority. "We therefore take this opportunity to remind both officers and the public alike that the exercise of one's right to refuse to answer police questioning or the right to refuse a search cannot form the sole basis for reasonable suspicion or probable cause."
A closed green container within the center console of Woolston's vehicle contained a half-gram of methamphetamine, but the young driver succeeded in convincing Lawrence Superior Court Judge William G. Sleva to suppress the evidence as the fruit of an unlawful search. State prosecutors were anxious to ensure this precedent did not stick, so they appealed. Two of the three appellate judges sided with the prosecutors.
"There is no substantial evidence of probative value demonstrating Woolston's consent to search was obtained by fraud, duress, fear, or intimidation, or a submission to the law," Judge Robb wrote for the majority. "We agree with the state."
The majority found the stop was a consensual encounter because the officer did not make a show of authority to intimidate Woolston. Judge John G. Baker did not buy the majority's conclusion.
"I simply do not believe it credible that an average citizen, under these circumstances, would feel free to leave," he wrote in brief dissent. "Consequently, I believe that the trial court properly granted Woolston's motion to suppress because the search of the vehicle violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution."
A copy of the ruling is available in a 200k PDF file at the source link below.